When the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines began, 72-year-old Jewelean Jackson looked to Dr. Chris Reif, her longtime physician at the local Community-University Health Care Center in South Minneapolis, for reassurance.
Could she trust it? What would she tell her fellow Black neighbors when they asked if it was safe?
Similarly, doctors looked to her for insight into how they could help instill vaccine confidence in communities of color.
“Today I had the second immunization, and Dr. Reif administered it, so that was special,” Jackson, a certified community health educator, said Friday.
More than 80% of patients at the clinic are Black, indigenous, or other people of color, said the clinic’s CEO Colleen McDonald Diouf. Many suffer from chronic conditions, such as diabetes and hypertension, require language assistance, or are homeless. A couple of years ago, the city’s largest homeless encampment was right across the street.
All those factors combined, the center’s patients are especially vulnerable to contracting and experiencing complications from COVID-19, making the clinic an anchor for patients amid the pandemic.
It’s a familiar story at Federally Qualified Health Centers – commonly known as community health centers – across the country. The designated clinics offer health care to underserved communities, and as people of color continue to suffer disproportionately from the virus, the centers could be essential in vaccinating hard-hit populations, experts say.
Nationwide, community health centers serve about 30 million patients. Two-thirds of them live at or below poverty, and half are racial or ethnic minorities. Most are uninsured or on Medicaid.
As part of its plan to improve the equitable distribution of vaccines, the Biden administration is targeting the community health centers as distribution hubs.
Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, chair of the COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force, announced earlier this month the administration will begin shipping doses to 250 centers, at least one in each state or territory.
Initially, the effort will focus on health centers that serve specific populations, including migrant workers, agricultural workers, people with limited English proficiency, residents of public housing complexes and homeless people, Nunez-Smith said. The administration recently released a list of the clinics.
As hesitancy, fears and rumors surrounding the vaccine run rampant in communities, Jackson, former committee chair at the center, has been having conversations with friends and family to help dispel myths.
When she received a vaccine, other African American seniors at her book club said she was “crazy.” Her 31-year-old daughter, skeptical of the vaccine she took, was terrified when she found out her mom took it. “I want you to live a long life,” Jackson said she told her.
Jackson said the community health centers are essential to communities like her own, with a history of medical injustices and lack of health care access.
“This system still doesn’t work for us as it should,” Jackson said. “Which is why, when you think about all that, the Community-University Health Care Center literally walks on water.”
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‘We don’t have enough’
Many health centers are experiencing unique challenges in providing care for their marginalized patients during the pandemic.
A report from the National Association of Community Health Centers found health centers reported delayed COVID-19 testing results, lack of personal protective equipment and significant staff shortages – challenges the health care advocacy group said are expected to increase.
“After accounting for estimated vaccine-related costs, the total financial impact on health centers through June 2021 is estimated to be as much as $13.5…